The floods: what can activists do?

Jonathan Neale argues that we need to be raising questions of climate change, being part of campaigns to make sure people are compensated, and organise to prevent cuts:

The floods have created a political crisis for the government. Quite right too. And in turn, environmentalists, activists and trade unionists need to think how to respond.

I think three things are critical here. First, we have to say that the floods are related to climate change, which means they will get worse, year after year, for generations.

Second, many people will lose their homes, or take an enormous financial hit. They will organise to try to get some compensation. We need to be part of those organisations, arguing that the government, the insurance companies, the banks and the building societies compensate people.

Third, unions and communities will be campaigning to prevent cuts in emergency services and spend more on flood defences. The most useful thing we can do in those campaigns is to bring the unions and community groups together.

Let me explain each of these points in turn. First, climate change. The severe floods and storms we see now are associated with climate change. They are not for certain caused by climate change. But climate change makes them more likely, and makes it more likely they will be severe.

Looking forward, climate change will increase. As it does so, floods and storms will get worse. Even if we cut emissions from burning coal, oil and gas very deeply and quickly, there will still be a good deal more global warming. At the moment we are doing no such deep cuts, and the world is on course for serious warming. This process will last for generations. Some years will be wetter than others, but the trend will be steadily in one direction.

This has to do with the simple physics of global warming. As the air gets warmer, it holds more and more water vapour. That water vapour often turns into rain.

Moreover, as the climate warms, it becomes more unstable. There is more energy in the atmosphere as a whole, and the climate system is changing quickly. At the moment, these changes are largest in winter. This is because the Arctic is warming faster than anywhere else. That means the still relatively cold air from the north finds it easier to move south.

Scientists have been predicting that climate change will mean the wet places become wetter, and the dry places drier. There will be more torrential rains, out of season, that the land cannot absorb, which leads to floods.

These predictions look like what we are seeing.

None of this means that any one flood or storm is caused by climate change. We have not yet reached the point where we are seeing floods and storms of a size unknown in recorded history, although we will. For now, the relationship with climate change is like drinking and fatal car accidents. Not all the drivers drink, but drinking makes bad accidents more likely. At the moment climate change makes bad storms and floods more likely. And at some point unprecedented floods will become common.

In this situation, it is important to say the words “climate change” over and over – particularly because the media are avoiding the word. But we need to do more than that.

Many people in the flooded areas are already very angry. They will try to organise. Greens, reds, activists, and trade unionists like us should be part of that organising and those meetings, with some helpful ideas to contribute.

In the UK so far there has been limited loss of life. Many people are devastated by losing their homes, or more commonly by all the flooding and mess they will have to clear up and the loss of the possessions of a lifetime. But the real cost is going to become evident in the next few months.

Insurance companies will try to pay out as little compensation as possible, or nothing at all. They will increase future insurance payments to impossible levels. There will be a very large cost of clearing up, and floods are sometimes infectious or toxic. Home owners who lose their homes will not be able to afford new ones. Tenants will have nowhere to go.

Then there are the long term effects on home owners. The price of houses will now start to fall in flooded areas. They will fall further, and prices in other flood plains will fall too. At the same time, the price of houses elsewhere will rise.

Many people will find it impossible to insure themselves and hard to move. Many will go “underwater” as the bankers say – they mean people who are stuck because they owe more on their houses than any possible selling price.

These will be mostly ordinary working people. 64% of people in England and Wales are owner occupiers. In the worst affected region, South West England, it’s 68%. And the majority of ordinary working people affected will be home owners.

But there are also the council tenants, the housing association tenants and the private tenants. They too will lose homes and possessions. They will need, and ought to have, alternative affordable housing. Where?

It would be mad to build a movement of owner occupiers, or a movement of tenants. In this situation, they will have to organise together.

Many people will be fighting insurance companies on their own, hoping for help from lawyers and courts they cannot afford. We can suggest that the government, and the council, should be appointing overseers to make sure the insurance companies pay out properly. Looking forward, we can insist that the government underwrite future insurance.

Many people will be in mortgage difficulties, or lose the value of their homes. In these situations we can suggest that people organise to try to make the banks and building societies who hold the mortgage take part or all of the hit. We can also insist that the government take part of the hit.

After all, successive governments encouraged people to build on flood plains. Banks loaned them money to do so. Governments cut back on dredging, flood controls and planning controls. And they all knew what was coming. The science has been clear for a long time.

Such organising may sound pie in the sky. After all, many people will think, no government or financial institution is going to pay the enormous cost involved.

However, there will be organising of some kind. There will be angry local meetings. David Cameron, and the other politicians, have already come under considerable pressure. Never underestimate the anger people can feel about their homes. Cameron has been forced to promise unlimited spending. He does not mean it, but he can be forced to spend a great deal.

Moreover, this is unfortunately only the beginning. We are starting out on a global process now, in many countries, of determining who is going to pay for the damages of climate change. In Britain much of that damage will come from storms, floods, rising sea levels, and hurricanes.

For now, outside of flooded areas activists will mainly be making general arguments. But I think we should also be campaigning in unions and elsewhere for government policies that seriously help the people affected. In the flooded areas, activists will be particularly helpful in making sure that angry local meetings start soon, and that continuing campaigning keeps up pressure on the government, banks and insurance companies.

There are two more questions to think about. One is flood defences. This is partly a matter of dredging and building dykes. It is also a matter of reforesting the hills in the watershed – George Monbiot has published an important article on this. He is right about reforesting, but I think wrong that too much money is being spent on other measures. We have to do both dredging and reforesting. These are expensive and necessary measures, and only the government can do them.

Flood defence, though, is also a matter of complex changes to housing, roads, rivers, railroads, public buildings, parking lots and drainage. There is someone in your local council and in your local environmental agency who understands the details of these matters in your area. That person is likely to be a union member.

The other question is emergency services. The government has been cutting the fire service, the ambulance service, and military rescue helicopters. This must stop and be reversed.

In all these cases, cooperation between the workers affected and their neighbours will be useful, and activists can be important in remembering to bring unions and community groups together.

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